It was never going to be easy for Unai Emery to take over from Arsene Wenger. Wenger spent 22 years at Arsenal during which he helped to build the club into what it is today and he certainly left his mark. Yet, so far, Emery has impressed.
Emery was never one of the frontrunners to take over at Arsenal, but after impressing the board with his vision and knowledge of the squad, he has seized the opportunity with both hands. Emery, who comes from Basque Country in Spain, had already shown his skills at Valencia and Sevilla, with whom he won the Europa League three times. However, he stuttered at Paris Saint-Germain and this resulted in some concerns regarding his appointment at the Gunners.
However, the squad seem to have embraced him and are noticeably a more unified unit under Emery. He had a tough start to the season, losing games against Manchester City and Chelsea, but since then he has turned things around and they have won all six of their league games. Now Arsenal are just two points behind the league leaders.
— Unai Emery (@UnaiEmery_) 7 October 2018
However, while he has certainly had a positive impact, there is still a lot of work to do. Here we will look at what he has done and what more he can do.
Improvement to Building from the Back
Emery likes to employ the goalkeeper as more than a safe pair of hands, and when possible utilise him as an extra pair of feet. However, Emery received a lot of criticism for trying to change the way Petr Cech plays.
For most of his career, Cech has been known as a goalkeeper who sends the ball forward with a wide range of distribution. Because of this, he did appear to struggle a bit when he had to play out from the back. Things were not helped as Emery had two centre-backs who were not particularly comfortable with the new tactics. On numerous occasions Arsenal were pushed high and would lose possession before they could put more than three passes together.
— Bernd Leno (@Bernd_Leno) 19 September 2018
Nonetheless, Emery has stuck to his tactics and the team are gradually becoming more comfortable with them. The reasoning behind Emery’s thinking is that it will draw the opposition in and create more space between the lines for midfielders and forwards to take advantage of.
When Bernd Leno was brought in after Cech’s injury things seemed to settle down. It is arguable that Leno’s decision making and footwork is better than Cech’s and fans can expect Emery to keep building on this tactic in the coming months.
A Better Training Regime and More Focus on Defending
Emery has made numerous changes to Arsenal’s training regime. He has built an outdoor gym next to the training ground, brought on board a number of coaches for specific aspects of training and fitness, and he has even banned fruit juice as it contains too much sugar. In short, Emery has gone even further than Wenger did in his attempts to maximise the players’ potential.
He has also adjusted the training schedule. Sessions that used to take place in the morning now take place in the afternoon, as Emery believes that if training takes place closer to kick-off time then the players will adapt better. He also takes training sessions at the venue (home or away) rather than at London Colney.
While Wenger is known to be meticulous about his training sessions, to the point that he always had a stopwatch on him, he was not the best when it came to the defensive aspects of the game, something that was evident very often during his final years with Arsenal.
In fact, so poor was the attempt to improve the team’s defensive play that players said that they were not receiving enough coaching with respect to positioning and defensive organisation. This has quickly changed under Emery. While the team are far from perfect, there has been real progress in their defensive work, most of which is down to specific instructions on how to defend as individuals and as a team.
Wenger would rarely focus on the opponents. He preferred that his players stuck to their own style and they try to dictate the game. Emery, on the other hand, looks for the opposition’s weak spots and builds strategies to exploit them. He also makes use of video sessions to examine players’ strengths and weaknesses.
High-intensity Pressing Game
It was very rare to see the team press together under Wenger. It was common to see just two or three players pressuring an opponent with the ball and this often led to hard working players, such as Alexis Sanchez, being visibly frustrated.
Now, under Emery, Arsenal are playing a high-intensity game where they press as a pack and close down passing channels. This is where the benefit of the high-intensity training sessions can be seen, as they are able to maintain the pace for 90 minutes.
There have even been times this season when Arsenal were leading the total sprints with the players coming together to win the ball back right across the pitch. These short bursts also help them to mount their own attacks and they have scored 15 goals from open play as a result, only Manchester City have more, with 16.
There has also been a huge change in the team’s work ethic. Under Wenger Arsenal always seemed quite subdued, but now they are playing with a new energy and lease on life, and the results are clear to see.
Definitive Roles Needed for Individuals
Emery is known to prefer a 4-2-3-1 formation with two deep-lying midfielders. However, he is yet to find his ideal starting XI as he has inherited a squad that does not quite fit his style. While this is not a major issue, it needs to be addressed in order for the team to have clarity as the season progresses.
— Mesut Özil (@MesutOzil1088) 29 September 2018
The biggest problem is trying to fit both Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey in the starting line-up. Ramsey has spent most of his time at Arsenal as a central midfielder, but with two midfielders behind him Emery has been trying to play Ramsey as a no. 10, which means that Ozil can’t always find space in the middle.
At the same time, Ozil has moved out of a central role and is spending time on the right, which has resulted in Henrikh Mkhitaryan dropping to the bench. Mkhitaryan has always been helpful on the right flank, not only attacking, but also helping Hector Bellerin, who becomes isolated when Ozil drifts inside.
— Aaron Ramsey (@aaronramsey) 7 October 2018
Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang is an excellent centre forward but Emery has been putting him out wide on the left to make space for Alexandre Lacazette. Despite this, the partnership has seen both players score 4 goals.
Emery is still working out how to get the best from both strikers. Luckily, the pair get on well and there is no animosity over one being preferred.
Emery has even tried to play a 4-2-2-2 formation with no attacking midfielders, at the time Ozil was injured and Ramsey was on the bench against Fulham. This showed that the wide players can also be more creative.
Giving Young Players a Chance
When Arsenal signed Lucas Torreira it was expected that the 22-year-old Uruguayan midfielder would immediately claim a place in the starting line-up after impressing at the World Cup. However, it was a different summer signing, 19-year-old Matteo Guendouzi, who has started in five games so far.
Guendouzi’s confident passing and constant movement is refreshing to see and he has shown true maturity in his understanding of Emery’s system. While his first two games were against Manchester City and Chelsea, Guendouzi still looked very impressive.
— Matteo Guendouzi (@MatteoGuendouzi) October 4, 2018
Another young player who Emery has rewarded with a start in the Europa League is Emile Smith Rowe. The 18-year-old attacking midfielder has scored his first goal for the senior team, but Emery knows that he has to stay focused.
Speaking about Smith Rowe Emery said, “With Emile we have to be calm. He is doing one step more with his career but he is very young and he needs to earn those opportunities.”
— Emile Smith Rowe (@emilesmithrowe_) October 4, 2018
There has even been improvement evident in Alex Iwobi. Last season Arsenal were struggling with a lack of wing-play but Iwobi has solved this with excellent performances on the left this season. So far he has a goal and his assist, but it his ability to take the ball forwards and then connect with teammates that has proved to be so helpful to Arsenal’s attacks.
All in all, it is shaping up to be an exciting time for Gunners fans.